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G.A. going away (just for a while)

30

September

Bulls Times beat reporter Greg Auman took your questions for more than an hour during a live chat today at blogs.tampabay.com/bulls. Here is a full transcript of the questions and answers:

Q: Greg, Pitt uses running to control the clock, how does USF plan to stop the run especially McCoy. -- Jim

G.A.: A big question this week. USF's been very consistent in praising not only LeSean McCoy, but also LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had two fourth-quarter touchdowns in their win against Syracuse. Both have been very effective. USF's first five opponents haven't really presented a running threat -- none have rushed for so much as 100 yards as a team -- but that changes this week. Instead of the nickel package USF has made its base defense thus far, the Bulls will be back in a standard 4-3 defense, with defensive end Chris Robinson likely sliding back to strongside linebacker, alongside Tyrone McKenzie and Kion Wilson.The run defense has been stout, but it hasn't been challenged like it will be Thursday night. Remember, McCoy had a big game last year against the Bulls, but USF scored 48 points -- I don't think the Bulls will be happy if they give up 37 points on Thursday ...

Q: Greg, our secondary got burned for some big plays on Sat. Are there any adjustments being made to address this or do you not see it as a problem against such a run-based offense? -- Brendan

G.A.: Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said he was "embarrassed" by his defense giving up five pass plays of 35 yards or more in Saturday's 41-10 win against N.C. State. All but one came with USF ahead by at least three touchdowns, and three of the five didn't result in points, but Burnham said it's something that has to be fixed or it'll be more costly next time. Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said it isn't tackling -- he claimed USF's defensive backs have missed only one tackle in the last two games -- but said it's more about positioning and being in the right place. Pitt quarterback Bill Stull hasn't had great numbers, with just two touchdowns so far, but it's an area that will be a focus in practice for certain.

Greg Q: As of today,How many tickets have already been distibuted for the Pitt. game on Thursday? Is it possible that we acutally sell the game out? Whats your prediction on how many fans will be at the game? Thanks -- Bill

G.A.: I haven't gotten a number from USF, but the general word I'm hearing is expectations of a crowd in the low 50s -- the average in two home games has been 53,000 in change, and while the Bulls would like more for a Big East opener and national TV game, there's a few wrinkles, of course. The Rays have their first-ever postseason game at home Thursday afternoon, and the first pitch is 2:30, meaning fans could take in both without missing a pitch or a snap ... if they're ambitious enough to take in a nine-hour doubleheader. I think you'll see the vice presidential debate take a little from the TV ratings, but I don't know if it should impact the crowd that much. I do not think the game will sell out, but I think a crowd in the mid-50s, given everything going on, is fine. If the Bulls keep winning, I think bigger crowds will jump on for the November home games against Rutgers and Connecticut ...

Q: What is the love affair with Verpeale? I understand he's experienced with the system but it seems to me he is always a step slow and just not quite up to par with the rest of the D and is getting burned way to many times to still be starter and getting the majority of plays. -- TJ

G.A.: Verpaele is only a starter in the nickel defense (with five DBs) so he likely won't be on the field to start the game Thursday. The coaches love his understanding of the defense, and the leadership at safety from him, Carlton Williams and Nate Allen is a strength. I was watching the replay from N.C. State game this morning and saw at least two deep passes that went incomplete in part because Verpaele was fast enough to get to a Wolfpack receiver and hit him right as the ball got there. For Bulls fans, the bigger question might be how the secondary handles the offseason losses at safety -- with Verpaele, Williams and Louis Gachette graduating, who steps in? Is it Jerrell Young? One of the young corners? A recruit?

Q: How has your job changed as the Bulls have gone from a relativly unknown a few years ago to a top ten team today ? -- Richard Todd

G.A.: Richard, good question, and though I think I made this joke last year, but tell Ken O'Brien and Wesley Walker I said hello. As a beat writer, you just want the team you cover to be relevant, and that's really been the case since 2005. My first year on the beat was '04, when USF went 4-7, but so much of that season was just getting adjusted to a new beat that it all was a big blur. Since then, you go back to the Louisville win in 2005, there's been a national interest in USF since then, bowl games each season. Obviously the national rankings in the past two seasons have made this a larger beat, and I think the blog has allowed me to cover the team in bigger, better ways since then.

Q: USF has had an inordinate amount of ankle injuries so far this season. Could it be because we swithced to Under Armor gear? Have the players switched to there shoes? -- Bruce Katz

G.A.: Under Armour does supply the shoes -- and everything the Bulls wear -- but I don't think there's a connection between the new footwear and the slew of foot/ankle injuries USF has suffered. It's a long list of foot/ankle injuries -- Mike Ford, Ben Williams, Zach Hermann, Trent Pupello, George Selvie, Terrell McClain, Sampson Genus, Alonzo McQueen, Tyller Roberts ... that's just off the top of my head. USF has been pretty dinged up all over though -- Carlton Williams has a hip, Theo Wilson has a knee, Jamar Taylor a bruised hand, Cedric Hill a hip, Brouce Mompremier a neck ... To this point, it's showcased their depth at key positions, but they're an injury or two from having significant problems.

Q: Continued GREAT coverage by yourself and the St. Pete Times staff. I really appreciate it all the way out here in Colorado Springs. Last year at about this time, USF was riding high with the highest ranking in school history, then fell to Rutgers in front of a Thursday night national television audience. This is eerily similar...what are you hearing from the coaching staff that the team will do differently to avoid the same result? -- Jason Strickland

G.A.: Jason, I think the similarities make it all the more obvious when USF thinks about reasons they don't want to lose the same way on the same platform. Matt Grothe and other players have talked about the relative maturity of this year's team, how the experience of getting up to No. 2 and then dropping out of the polls in three weeks has given them a greater focus and perspective on not letting their ranking change their preparation for a big game like this. There's a lot that makes Thursday's game like last year's Rutgers game: National TV at home on a Thursday, USF undefeated, a conference game against a team with a standout workhorse running back. Focus too much on stopping McCoy, and you have a coming-out party for hereto-unknown Bill Stull. And yes, I think the Bulls will be all the more on the lookout for the fake punts and field goals this week ...

Q: Leavittt is usually rather light on recruiting during the season. Any indication he will do more this year WHILE the team is ranked in teh top-10? It seems commitments might be easier to come by while undefeated and nationally ranked. -- T. Bever

G.A.: USF is way ahead of its usual pace for commitments, to where the Bulls aren't making it a big priority to add to that total right now. This will be their sixth game in as many weeks -- with three byes in the second half of the season, coaches can get out and evaluate much more. I don't think you'll see many official visits in-season, unless the Bulls are after kids who can make early enrollment in January. Aside from that, the Bulls have about 10 scholarships to play with, giving them a tighter focus for recruiting than in past Januarys ...

Q: Will USF use a "feature" back this game or continue going with the 5-back rotation like we've seen all year? -- Brendan

G.A.: USF has been remarkably balanced at running back in these first five games -- they have one of the league's best running games, but don't have a single player who ranks in the Big East's top 10 in yards per game. I think league play could whittle down the committee from five to two or three. Mike Ford has the lowest average per carry of the group, but is the most reliable in short yardage and goal-line situations; Jamar Taylor has shown himself capable of taking over games with big drives; Ben Williams hasn't had the same success with yards but is still the most well-rounded of the group. I think Mo Plancher has been the surprise of the group, and Richard Kelly has the best yards-per-carry average, so I'll be curious to see how those two backs are used in Big East play. For all the rotation, Carl Franks is a guy who will stick with a hot hand if one back gets going. We still haven't seen Ford at 100 percent, and Taylor was limited by a bruised hand against N.C. State. Of course, Matt Grothe could wind up outgaining all of them, as he did against the Wolfpack. The easy answer is that we don't know. USF might have been smokescreening for five weeks to set up one back as a 20-carry star, but it sure looks like more balance and rotation right now.

Q: Any idea if Leavitt will make O-Line a priority? Most sites credit them with one commit so far. The Bulls have never had the depth across the O-Line that you see at "traditional" programs. -- T. Bever

G.A.: Absolutely, offensive line is a major priority -- I've heard as many as six scholarships will be used to address the line, where four starters will be lost to graduation. Right now, you'd be looking at a line with only two truly experienced players in Zach Hermann and Jake Sims, with Jeremiah Warren next and two completely new linemen. Wesley Chapel's Kamran Joyer is on board, and some are counting Gainesville's Kendall Kelly as another. I'd be surprised if there aren't at least five o-line signings in February, with a junior college player or two in there to help with the immediate impact.

Q: Greg, being that you were at practice. What do you think the chance that Selvie plays?

G.A.: I think Selvie could have played last week if he needed to -- with USF up 21-3 two minutes into the second quarter, there was zero need to play him. I was at practice for about 45 minutes Monday night, and Selvie did not participate. Having said that, he probably needs the practice less than anyone else. Leavitt wouldn't say Monday that Selvie wasn't starting -- something he said three days before the N.C. State game -- which lends me to believe he's keeping that in play. USF's defensive line came up big against N.C. State, but they more legitimately need him against Pittsburgh. I think he'll play Thursday, but that's not so much based on anything I've seen in practice so much as my knowledge of Selvie's toughness and his importance to this defense.

Q: How many generations does it take for 'voters' to uncondition their brains that only "top-tier, branded" schools deserve to be in big games and have Heisman Candidates?, generally speaking -- Ugi

G.A.: I said this a few weeks ago, but if USF keeps winning and Grothe continues to play the huge role he's played for the past two years, Grothe will be in the discussion. If he comes out with a multi-touchdown dual-threat game in a convincing win Thursday, he'll solidify his standing as a top-10 Heisman candidate. Think about the preseason lists -- Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno are off the radar now, Mark Sanchez has taken a hit. Pat White? A lot of the big names are already off the board. There are still some huge quarterbacks playing at high levels -- Grothe needs Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Missouri's Chase Daniel to lose, and that drops them down a peg. We're only a third or so into the college season, so as long as USF keeps winning, Grothe is a legitimate candidate, whether he's from an established program or not.

Q: Some D-Line questions: Do you see David Bedford making an impact this year? Leslie Stirrups was also once a highly touted recruit. What are his chances of attending USF, does USF want him back and has he resolved all of his legal issues (has he managed to stay out of trouble)? -- Darth Vader

G.A.: Darth ... Bedford has been a non-factor in five games, unable to make up the ground he lost by not being on campus this summer while taking a huge courseload. He's a player that coaches are riding hard in practice -- lots of yelling, publicly criticizing -- but that also means they see something in him. He had worked inside at tackle the last two games, but was working as a second-team end Monday night. He was prolific in junior college, and could be someone they unleash in conference play. So far he hasn't had nearly the impact of Craig Marshall, or even Keith McCaskill among the newcomers. Honestly haven't checked on Stirrups to see how he's doing in Mississippi. He has very consistently said he wants to be at USF next fall -- whether he can make that happen academically, whether the coaches are wanting to bring him despite some of his past problems, those things remain to be seen. I'll try to get an update on him in the next few weeks ...

Q: If all teams besides USF and BYU go undefeated ( very reasonable hypothetical) and every other team in the country has at least 1 loss. What does that mean for the National Championship game? -- Dres

G.A.: It's hard to imagine a national title game without any teams from the perceived power conferences -- there's such a big SEC and Big 12 presence atop the polls that all the contenders would have to lose and lose convincingly to drop out of the picture. There are still like 18 undefeated teams, but if USF can get through that Louisville-Cincinnati road combo, I imagine that number will be well under 10 -- the Bulls would probably be a top-five team at that point. What helps USF is that its final two games -- against what is now a ranked Connecticut team and on the road against West Virginia team once thought to be a top-10 squad -- would give their schedule some last-minute credibility. It could come down to how thoroughly USF is winning -- the Bulls need more N.C. State wins and fewer FIUs in the next seven games, for sure.

Q: With so many bowl reps at the game and the competition from the Rays playoffs, do you think USF will open up more free tickets to students to fill up the stadium? -- cg

G.A.: Hard to say. I haven't heard anything about the student section of 12,501 seats even being fully distributed. I would think you'll see some kind of announcement from USF in the next 24 hours, something designed to boost the walk-up crowd -- a cheap upper-deck ticket, a promotional tie-in for folks who are torn between going to Ray-Jay or watching the Rays on TV. If the crowd is in the 50s, I think the bowl reps will appreciate the other things going on ...

Q: Any comment on the special teams? We have not seen any team call some fakes on us yet. That is going to happen. Are the coaches prepared unlike last year? -- Dr. Rob Ritter

G.A.: USF hasn't showed many wrinkles in these first five games -- why waste a trick play on a non-conference opponent? Again, the Rutgers game last year saw the Knights pull out the stops -- big gain on a fake punt, touchdown on a fake field goal. USF will certainly be aware of those possibilities -- Pitt's enough of an underdog that they might feel they need a home run on one of those to help hang around on the road against a top-10 team. This is a time of year when you'll start to see more gimmickry both by the Bulls and against them ...

Q: Greg, with Craig Marshall playing as well as he has the last couple weeks, what are the chances he takes the starting spot away from Buie in the coming weeks? -- BC

G.A.: Marshall definitely has earned a larger role at defensive end, coming up with a sack, forced fumble and interception against N.C. State. Buie has been frustratingly close to lots of big plays, but hasn't made those tackles yet. With George Selvie on the mend, the Bulls need both Marshall and Buie playing at a high level. I don't know how much longer Marshall will make plays and Buie will be stifled before a change is made. Buie has shown an endurance that allows him to play a ton of snaps without much dropoff in his game, and I don't know if Marshall has that yet. Add in Chris Robinson on third downs and redshirt freshman Patrick Hampton, who had three tackles in very limited action Saturday, and you're starting to see depth at a key position. I think Buie still has the job to lose for now.

Q: If USF does make it to a BCS bowl what bowl would be the most likely? Would it be a bowl with a close proximity (Orange) or one that would try to bring in as many new people as possible (Sugar)? -- Brendan

G.A.: If USF wins the Big East but isn't in the national championship game picture, the Orange makes the most sense. With a BCS bowl, there's an expectation of bringing a large crowd -- more like 10,000 or 12,000 fans or more, instead of 6,000 or 8,000 or less at non-BCS bowls. Orange would facilitate the biggest USF contingent, with Sugar close behind. If Florida or Florida State were to somehow win their league titles, it'd be intriguing to see the Bulls pitted against either of those two ...

Q: Just joined the room. GA, what are Waldon, Jackson, and Mcdonald up to in europe playing Bball? Any stories in the works on ex-bballers? -- Ryan

G.A.: Ryan, honestly, there's not a ton of time for former basketball player roundups right now. I talked to Stan Heath yesterday, and should get a post up today or Wednesday about the current team. I've got plans during the upcoming bye week, but will try to get around to checking up on B.B., Altron and Will and where they plan on playing this season ...

Q: Greg, with the Big East Commissioner leaving next year, what's the possibility of still adding another member to the football segment of the conference? The BE will continue to face a lot of scrutiny until it gets another team -- Jason

G.A.: Jason, adding a ninth team really wouldn't help the Big East unless it was an absolute coup. Notre Dame's not going to happen, and there isn't likely to be another option until you see other major conference shakeups. Think about all you guys clamoring for East Carolina after their big wins ... and now they're back to being unranked and getting waxed by Houston. Mike Tranghese has made it clear he's not going to expand just to make scheduling easier, and he's not going to go bigger than 16 teams in basketball, so you're talking about a football-only member. There's not a reasonable option that would make the Big East a better conference -- bigger, yes, but that really doesn't equate to better on a national scale. Focus your energies on getting the current eight schools better -- getting Rutgers and Syracuse up, getting Cincinnati a healthy quarterback, etc. ...

Q: Scott McKillop was a beast for Pitt at linebacker last year, continually on the ball and in the backfield. Has there been any talk of him on the practice field and how will USF handle him this year?

G.A.: Brendan, another good question -- I'll have to check to see who's "playing" McKillop on scout team. As much as any player USF will face in the Big East, the Bulls will have to account for McKillop. They're going from an N.C. State team with a glaring hole at linebacker with Nate Irving injured -- just watch that game and see how many intermediate passes Matt Grothe completed -- to a Pitt team whose strength is at linebacker. It'll mean a different game plan, especially on the passing side of the offense. McKillop had 18 tackles last season and the Bulls scored 48 points on the road, so other people on Pitt's defense you probably haven't even heard of will have to step up for them.

G.A.: OK ... think that's about 25 questions answered. Thanks for all the great questions -- if you have one I've missed, just shoot me an e-mail at auman@sptimes.com and I'll try to get to it on the blog. We'll be back in a few weeks to do this again ... Thanks everybody.

[Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 12:36pm]

    

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